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hope-on-the-slopes

Photo by Sean Jacks

When the Oregon rain hits you and pummels you and soaks you to the bone for hour after hour, it can be hard not to ask yourself, “What am I doing out here? Why?“

That was not the case for the 2014 Hope on the Slopes 24-hour vertical challenge at Mt. Hood Skibowl. We knew exactly why we were out there in the rain: To celebrate life and fight cancer. Come rain, come base-camp-destroying mini-tornadoes, come slushy groomers and sticky side-trails and snail-like lift rides, we were in it for the long haul.

No Oregon downpour was going to stop us from getting out there and shredding it up and loving life, although come to think of it, maybe a detour into the warming hut for a few minutes to dry off and beat back the hypothermia wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.

This was my first Hope on the Slopes event, and my first fundraiser in I don’t know how long. I have three kids, and most of the charitable stuff in my life involves their schools and so forth. But I really wanted to do Hope on the Slopes this year and write about it. In the big picture, a few thousand dollars from a bunch of skiers and snowboarders is not going to cure cancer, but every bit helps, and the message is important. It shows that we care about the people who suffer and have suffered from this terrible disease, and we want to do what we can to help.

So I signed up for a team called Controlled Division, thus named because cancer is the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells. I had no idea what a powerhouse this team is under the leadership of Savannah Furr, who started the team in honor of her grandfather Danny in 2010. But that became clear quickly enough. By the time I finally got around to fundraising, Savanna and her troops were well into the thousands, with a goal of $7,500. And I was contributing a measly $25. Savannah may look happy-go-lucky in this photo (shot by Sean Jacks before the rain swamped us), but trust me, when it comes to raising money to fight cancer she is a charger.

To improve my contribution, I wrote a mass email and a Facebook post to friends and family, explaining that I was dedicating my runs to my amazing cancer-surviving sister Jessica and my dearly missed mother-in-law and friend Nora. “I can’t think of two people who better epitomize the love of wilderness and the beauty of mountains in winter,” I wrote, and I meant it.

Within two days my page had pulled in $730, and I had gone from a fundraising zero to a VIP. But the money I raised had nothing to do with me. It was all about the positive life-affirming power of those two amazing women, Jessica and Nora. One made it through cancer; the other succumbed to it in 2006, dying on her own terms and with dignity, thanks to Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law.

I was riding with cancer survivor Dan Kneip and his posse of Mount Hood pals, Sean Jacks, Shannon Halda-Wipf and Stacey Lambert. I had wanted to make turns with Dan and his friends ever since Zeb Yaklich wrote a great article about Dan’s struggle with cancer that I published on Shred Hood. I interviewed Dan over the phone for that story and immediately liked him, hit him up on Facebook and started following his mountain adventures and cheering his recovery. Here’s a guy who fought through 16 surgeries since being diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in 2006, who made it the centerpiece of his recovery to come up to Mount Hood as often as possible, to make turns and tell jokes and relax with his friends in Heather Canyon and the Mazot, where he has a bar stool with his name inscribed on it.

Even when the pain became too brutal for Dan to ski he would still come up to the mountain, just to enjoy the view and soak it all in, and think ahead to a better day when he could get back out there.

Two years ago Dan was too sick to participate in Hope on the Slopes. Last year he signed up but never got out on the trail. It was just too painful after all he had been through.

Now here he was, back on the mountain, skiing down black-diamond runs, telling hilarious stories in the Historic Warming Hut about his days as a camel trainer at the circus, seeking out opinions on various entrepreneurial ideas, leading side expeditions off the beaten path and into the trees, joking with old friends and making new friends left and right. We hit it off from the first lift ride. He looks pretty happy in the photo by his buddy Sean Jacks doesn't he?

No doubt Dan and Nora would have been good friends had they met. My mother-in-law Nora was a Greek citizen who grew up in Egypt. She never tried skiing until her kids took it up, and she immediately loved it, despite the fact that she was a truly awful skier: knees together and locked into a huge snowplow, elbows out wide to the sides, back hunched over, neck scrunched up, poles pointing sharply in random directions, mouth open with fear and joy, yelling out to anyone and everyone ahead of her with her thick Greek accent: “Get out of my way!”

She ran into the same beginner three times in the same day once. When he saw her coming that last time he just opened his arms to hug her and they crashed together.

Although Nora improved over time, she never became much of a skier. But she loved everything about it, and when she told you about how much she loved it, you couldn’t help but feel it too. She kept coming up to the mountains for as long as she could and then some, even as her bones grew frail and the cancer metastasized into her liver and turned her skin a jaundiced yellow. The last few times on the slopes were stressful for those of us watching out for her safety, but it meant so much to Nora that we couldn’t bear the idea of suggesting she should stop.

My sister Jessica also had to stop skiing for a few highly stressful years. When we were kids she crashed into a T-Bar hut at Mittersill Ski Resort in Franconia, New Hampshire, and she broke her pelvis and femur. She was in a body cast for months. And then something like 25 years later that same leg developed cartilage cancer. She underwent some frightening operations, and her knee has not been the same since. But she can walk. She can ride a bike. She can ski.

I remember when Jess was recovering, we did a family trip to Crystal Mountain. My Uncle Tony flew out from Boston to join us, a huge deal for him because he hates to travel and almost never flies. But this was important to him. A former Dartmouth racer, he taught us to ski in New Hampshire all those years ago. He still skis daily at the age of 79 (his big thing these days is guiding a longtime ski buddy who is losing his eyesight). Tony loves the mountains, he loves family and he really wanted to do something for his niece. So he crossed the country to ski with her.

These were the early days of shaped skis, and Tony was blown away by the new design and the way you can use it to arc perfectly round turns without skidding at all. For him the new modern arcing turn was exciting and incredibly nuanced, but for me it was just the latest version of his refrain from when we were kids, with his Yankee accent: “Cah-ve your turns. Don’t skid. Cah-ve your turns.” Well, Tony and Jess arced and carved up Crystal with those shaped slalom skis all day every day on that trip. Their mantra was “Leave nothing on the hill,” and before long my sister was skiing as well as ever, fast and confident and happy.

Memories of that pivotal trip were filling me with extra energy, rain or no rain, and I decided to venture out solo to hit the Upper Bowl under the lights for some good, fast ones in the rain. There were guys up there like Luis Castaneda bombing it down the face trying to rack up 100,000 vertical feet in 24 hours. I was more interested in slipping off to the sides to sample the tree shots I love so much in the Upper Bowl. The snow was good old Cascade Concrete, heavy and wet and sticky as glue. Pure bliss. Remember, I grew up skiing New Hampshire, which means I grew up skiing solid blue ice. Heavy snow is just fine with me, especially with some fresh rain on top to crystallize it. I even got a good crash in, head over ski boots and sliding face-first down to a slushy stop beached on a big wet mogul with a fistful of slush down my shirt. Living the life. This one's for Nora.

I knocked the snow off my helmet and straight-lined it down in time for the torchlight parade safety briefing: “Do not hold your flares up over your head. They will melt your jacket. They will burn you.”

Good to know. A few minutes later we lit the torches next to the Warming Hut at mid-mountain, breathed in the fumes, and made a motley parade down the pitch-black Lower Bowl. I have unpleasant memories of a childhood torchlight parade involving a vicious Austrian dictator, ruined gloves and frostbitten fingers, but this experience was nothing like that memory. I’m sure it would have made a beautiful video had it not been for the monsoon. Even with the challenging light, Sean captured a good photo of us coming down.

When we reached the base it was time to stake our flares into the big snow statue that spelled out the word HOPE. Except the statue had solidified into rock-hard ice, and it was very difficult to drill in the torches solidly enough to keep them from falling over a few minutes later. Here’s a shot of Shannon Halda-Wipf planting her torches for Dan, and for good friends recently diagnosed.

Before long it was time for Dan’s speech. He spoke about his close calls and his fears, the operations that went wrong, the pain and discomfort, and how lucky he feels to be alive and back on the slopes. He offered his best wishes for all those who have received a cancer diagnosis, and he spoke of the need for a cure, or at least better treatment.

“We need to do better than Chemo, Radiation and hacking tumors out with sharp knives,” he said. “We owe it to the children to do better than that.”

After the torchlight parade I met up with Jon Waldum, who is deeply involved in an adaptive skiing program that gives disabled people a chance to enjoy Mount Hood. Jon had put together a Cascade Ski Club team dedicated to the memory of longtime Mount Hood skier Brock Hannibal, who died from cancer last November, and we swapped stories on the lift and tore down Reynolds at full-speed in the slush and just got absolutely, ridiculously soaking wet. When we finally headed into the Warming Hut to huddle next to the fire, there were Dan and his friends. The conditions outside had crossed over from Slightly Bearable to Just Plain Awful, but the donations were still rolling in to the American Cancer Society. The great freeskier Sammy Carlson, who grew up in Tigard shredding Mount Hood, pitched in a nice $300 donation, even though he and Dan have never met.

By this point it was well past the Warming Hut’s official closing hour, and they had to reluctantly kick us out into the rain. We all took a run together down Dogleg, and then at the bottom Dan and I stayed out for another run together. Not a lot of visibility left, but it was fun to make turns together.

Now the wind was starting to howl from out of nowhere, or more accurately, from out of the Northwest. Unfortunately this was exactly the wrong wind direction for the Controlled Division tent, which suddenly started flapping wildly and lifting off and falling apart as Dan and I skied over. It was like a mini-tornado, nylon flapping and aluminum buckling, plastic parts cracking into shards and dropping down into the snow, teammates scrambling to grab the beast and tame it. Just a complete mess, and getting worse by the minute.

It took us a while to salvage what was left of the tent and pack it away. By this point there was no point in fighting the storm off any more. Our base camp was trashed.

This was a sign. A few hardy souls made it through the night, but not many. And I was not among them. I retreated from the rain and took a 20-minute hot shower at the lodge, spread out my stuff in the drying room, and collapsed on the couch.

A few hours later I woke up to the sound of rain forest. I kept thinking I SHOULD BE OUT THERE, but it was just plain brutal out, even for Oregon. My boots and gloves were still soaked, so… breakfast and coffee, update the website (“Today on Mount Hood: Monsoon!”) and … yep. Still raining hard. Boots and gloves still soaked. Back to it.

The Lower Bowl chair has never seemed slower, and that is saying a lot. I pulled a cheapo Fred Meyer pancho over my not-so-waterproof coat, and it lasted all of one run before it got shredded by the wind and rain to useless bits of plastic. I made a few soggy laps and before long I caught up with Sean, Dan, Shannon and Stacey, and our new buddy David at the Warming Hut took pity on us and let us in early to crank up the fire. We headed back up to the Upper Bowl, got a few more turns in. Soaked up some more of that nourishing Oregon rain. Back to the Warming Hut.

In retrospect I believe it rained hard and steady for the final 19 hours of our 23 hour day (thankfully shortened by one hour due to Daylight Savings). But spirits were high as we gathered at the base for the awards ceremony.

Our team Controlled Division was the top fundraiser with $11,912, beating our original goal by more than $440. Savannah was the top individual, raising $5,007, and Dan finished third with $3650, behind Gary Collison, the leader of a formidable PCC Structurals Team that raised the second most amount combined. Here is a photo from Sean Jacks showing Gary, Savannah and Dan:

Many other people and teams also contributed significantly, including:

  • Chad Bertrand, $1500
  • Matthew Sweet, $1350 in memory of his dad and stepdad
  • Cancer survivor/ski racer Ryan Rooper, $850
  • Levi Hill, $800
  • Tekla Schmidt, $670

Overall, Hope on the Slopes at Skibowl raised more than $35,000 for the American Cancer Society.

There was some confusion over who actually won the vertical challenge, because the trackers we wore didn’t seem to work properly. I have no idea how fast I or anyone else skied, how many miles or runs or vertical feet. I do know that I made some enjoyable turns with some new mountain friends, and we had a lot of laughs and shared some emotional moments. And as bad as it got out there, it was a great 23 hours. As Dan said at one point midway through an exploratory side-tour into the forest, “This is what it’s all about, just being out here. I don’t care if it’s 20 runs or 3 runs or 100 runs. Just being out here making runs is enough.”

Many thanks to all who donated to and/or participated in Hope on the Slopes 2014, and special thanks to Sean Jacks for sharing his photos with Shred Hood.